What is Hand Rankings?

Hand Ranking → 1.  Hand Ranking is the absolute strength of a poker hand.

Example usage → “In terms of the hand-rankings, a flush always beats a straight”

Explanation

Here we will list the different types of poker hand in order of their strength, starting with the weakest. Although the following rankings are used in the majority of poker formats, they don’t necessarily hold true for every variant. For example, in 6-plus Hold’em (played with a stripped deck) a flush beats a full-house. In lowball variants such as “Razz” the pot is awarded to the “worst” possible hand – see the glossary entry under low hands for more information.

High Hand – When no player at the table has a made hand (pair or better), then the pot is awarded to the player who holds the best “high hand”. 

For example in Hold’em -

Board: J9423

Hand 1: AK
Hand 2: KQ

Neither player makes a pair here, so the player with the highest ranked hole-card wins the pot. Ace is high in this context meaning hand 1 wins this matchup. If both players share the same high card, then the second high-card is consulted to see who wins the pot. In the above example hand 1 is referred to as “Ace high” while hand 2 is referred to as “King-high”. 

Let’s change the example so that both players share the same high-card.

Board: J9423

Hand 1: AK
Hand 2: AQ

Both players now share the same high card, but that does not mean the pot is chopped. When considering the second hole-card we see that hand 1 is “Ace-King high” while hand 2 is “Ace-Queen high”. Hand 2 hence wins the pot. Let’s see one final example

Board: J9422

Hand 1: A7
Hand 2: A8

It’s important to remember that in Hold’em we must always use five cards when constructing a hand. Understanding this rule will help us to make sense of the following example. 

Firstly note that both hand 1 and hand 2 are not technically high-card hands. There is a pair on the board meaning that both players have a pair of twos. However, it’s worth noting that since neither player makes a pair using their hole-cards, the hand strength is often colloquially referred to as “Ace-high” even though it is technically a pair of twos. So now who wins in this line-up?

It’s easy to assume that hand 2 wins here since it has the higher side-card. However, this is where we learn the importance of considering the full five-card hand when establishing the winner. 

Hand 1: 22AJ9
Hand 2: 22AJ9

We can see clearly that this is spot is in fact a tie. Both players have a pair of twos with an Ace, Jack and Nine on the side. Since the pair is on the board, it’s common to hear that “both players chop with Ace-high”.


Pair – We make a pair when exactly two of the cards within our hand are of identical rank. 

For example, in Hold’em -

Board: J9423

Hand 1: AJ
Hand 2: QJ

Hand 3: KK

Both Hand 1 and hand 2 make a pair of jacks. In situations where two players make the same pair, the winner is decided by the side cards known as kickers. Hand 1 makes a pair of Jacks with an Ace kicker, while hand 2 makes a pair of Jacks with a Queen kicker. 

Hand 3 also makes a pair but utilizing hole-cards only since it’s a pocket pair. Hand 3 beats both hand 1 and hand 2 since it’s a higher pair. 

Board: A9T82

Hand 1: A5
Hand 2: A4

This example illustrates the importance of remembering that Hold’em hands always consist of 5 cards. At first glance it might seem hand 2 is better due to the higher side card, but these hands actually chop. Both hands make a pair of Aces with Ten, Nine and Eight as side cards.

Board: ATJ22

Hand 1: AQ
Hand 2: AK

Since there is a pair already on board, both hand 1 and hand 2 technically make two-pair, Aces and Deuces. Since one pair is already on the board and part of both players hand, both hands are often colloquially referred to as “one-pair” (even though they are in fact two-pair). In the above example hand 2 wins since it has the better kicker.

Two-Pair – We make two-pair when we have two sets of two cards with identical rank. I.e two pairs instead of just one. (See above).

For example, in Hold’em -

Board: ATJ24

Hand 1: TJ
Hand 2: A4

Note that the strength of a two-pair hand is defined by the highest pair. In the above example hand 1 makes two-pair Tens and Jacks while hand 2 makes two-pair Aces and Fours. Hand 2 wins in this example because its highest pair is the strongest (even though its second pair is the weakest). In scenarios where two players share the same high-pair, the rank of the second pair is consulted. If both pairs are identical then the kicker determines the winner.

Board: ATJ22

Hand 1: TsJ
Hand 2: A5

This above example has the tendency to confuse novice players since it might appear as if hand 1 has two-pair while hand 2 has one-pair. In some senses this is true, and hand 2 will often be colloquially referred to as “one-pair” since its second pair is made with the board. 

Hand 2 is actually the winner here though since it makes a stronger two-pair. Breaking down each holding into its exact 5-card hand can be helpful.

Hand 1: TTJJA (Jacks and Tens with Ace kicker)
Hand 2: A
A22J (Aces and Twos with Jack Kicker)

In some senses this feels “unfair” since hand 1 paired both hole-cards while hand 2 only paired one hole-card. When two-pair hand is outdrawn due to the board-pairing this is referred to as “getting counterfeited”.

Board: 7788J

Hand 1: AQ
Hand 2: 44

Here is another example counterfeiting. Both players make two-pair, Sevens and Eights as a result of the board. Hand 2 made two pair on the flop, Fours and Sevens, due to holding a pocket pair. Once the turned Eight completes two-pair on the board he can no longer use his pocket-pair to construct his 5-card hand since a better two-pair is available (Sevens and Eights). Since both players have the same two-pair it now becomes a battle of kickers. Hand 1 has an Ace kicker while hand 2 has a Jack kicker. Hand 1 hence scoops the pot despite not pairing its hole-cards at any point. We can describe hand 2’s pocket pair as having been “counterfeited”. 

Although the absolute hand strength in both cases is two-pair, hand 1 is often referred to colloquially as “Ace high” while hand 2 is referred to as “board”. Notice how hand 2 doesn’t use any of his hole-cards to construct his final 5-card hand. 

Three of a Kind – We make three of a kind when our holding consists of three cards of identical rank.

Board: TT5

Hand 1: KT
Hand 2: AT

Both hand 1 and hand 2 make three of a kind Tens in the above example. When three of a kind is made using only one of our hole-cards it is frequently referred to as “trips”. 

Since both players have the same rank of three-of-a-kind in the above example, the winner will be determined by the kicker. Hand 1 has trip Tens with a King kicker while hand 2 has trip Tens with an Ace kicker. Hand 2 hence wins this matchup since it has the higher kicker.

Board: T95

Hand 1: 99
Hand 2: 55

Once more both players make three of a kind. When three of a kind is formulated using a pocket pair it is frequently referred to as a “set”. In scenarios where players make three-of-a-kind of different ranks, the player with the highest ranked three of a kind wins the pot.

Board: TTT45

Hand 1: AQ
Hand 2: AK

In this example both players make trips purely with board cards. Seeing as neither player’s hole cards help to directly formulate the three of a kind, these holdings are often colloquially referred to as “Ace high”. Both players technically hold three of a kind Tens with an Ace kicker. It might appear at first glance that these hands will chop, but it’s important to remember that we always need to use 5 cards to construct a complete hand. This leaves us room to incorporate a second kicker as the tie-breaker. Hand 1 is trip Tens with Ace Queen kickers while hand 2 is trip Tens with Ace King kickers. Hand 2 hence wins the pot since the second kicker is stronger.

Straight – We make a straight when we hold 5 cards in direct consecutive rank order.

For example, in Hold’em -

Board: QT9

Hand 1: KJ
Hand 2: J8

Both hand 1 and hand 2 make a straight in this example. In scenarios where two players make a straight, the winner is determined by the highest ranked card used to formulate the straight. Hand 1 makes a “King-high straight” while hand 2 makes a “Queen-high straight”. Hand 1 hence wins the pot.

The best possible straight in poker is the Ace-high straight (TJQKA) often referred to as “broadway”. The Ace can also be used to formulate the lowest possible straight A2345, often referred to as “the wheel”. Note however that it is not possible for the Ace to appear in the middle of a made straight. I.e. QKA23 is actually just Ace-high, not a straight. 

Board: KQT95

Hand 1: J8
Hand 2: AJ

Note that it is possible to make a straight using just one (or even zero) of our hole cards. Hand 1 makes the King high straight using only his Jack. Although the Eight is connected to the straight-draw it’s not used in this case since it doesn’t appear as part of a King-high straight. (9TJQK). Hand 1 technically has an impressive 6-card straight in this instance, but this is meaningless in a poker variant that only use 5 cards when formulating a hand.

Hand 2 is the winner here since it can use both the Jack and the Ace to make the broadway Ace-high straight.

Flush – We make a flush when we hold five cards all of the same suit.

For example, in Hold’em:

Board: K52

Hand 1: AT
Hand 2: QJ

In this example both hand 1 and hand 2 make a flush on the flop. In situations where more than one player makes a flush, the winner is determined by the highest ranked card which contributes to the flush.

Hand 1 makes an Ace-high heart flush, while hand 2 makes a King-high heart flush. Hand 1 hence wins in this matchup. Note that although hand 2’s flush is technically King-high, it is often colloquially referred to as a “Queen-high flush” since the King of hearts is already on the board.

Board: K5234

Hand 1: T6
Hand 2: QT

In Hold’em it is also possible to make a flush using just one hole-card. Although both players make a King-high flush in this instance, hand 1 uses both of its hole-cards while hand 2 uses only one. Despite this, hand 2 is the winner since its second highest flush-card is the Queen. Hand 1 hence makes a King-Ten-high heart flush, while hand 2 makes a King-Queen-high heart flush. To make life easier, hand 1 is usually referred to as a “Ten-high flush” while hand 2 is usually referred to as a “Queen-high flush”.

Full-House – We make a full house when we hold both a pair and three of a kind as part of the same 5 card hand.

For example, in Hold’em:

Board: AJJQ5

Hand 1: AJ
Hand 2: QQ

In this example both hand 1 and hand 2 make full houses. The strength of a full house is determined by the rank of the trips (three of a kind) component. Hand 1 makes three Jacks while hand 2 makes three Queens. Hand 2 hence comes off the victor in this match up. Full houses are commonly described using the following terminology -

Hand 1: Jacks full of Aces
Hand 2: Queens full of Jacks

Note that full-houses are described by their trips component first since this is the most important in gauging their strength. The pair component of a full-house need only be consulted if it ties for the trips component. 

Board: JJTTs5

Hand 1: AJ
Hand 2: AT

In this example both players again make a full house, but this time only using one of their hole-cards. Like other Hold’em hands, the relative strength is often greatly decreased when using only one hole-card to formulate the final 5-card holding. Although hand 2 makes the full house, he should be very careful about domination possibilities since any Jack makes a higher full-house. To differentiate between nut and non-nut full houses the terms “overfull” and “underfull” are used. Here hand 1 makes the overfull with his Jx while hand 2 makes the underfull with his Tx.

In situations where two players have the same full-house they will always tie. Given that constructing the full-house requires exactly 5 cards, there is no room for tie-breaking based on kickers. 

Note that full-houses are often referred to colloquially as “boats” or “full boats”.

Four of a Kind – We make four of a kind when we hold four cards of identical rank. This leaves room for one kicker. Four of a kind is often colloquially referred to as “quads”. 

For example, in Hold’em:

Board: QQ552

Hand 1: QQ
Hand 2: 55

This almost never happens in Hold’em but in the above example both players make quads using pocket pairs. In scenarios where two players make quads, the winner is determined by who holds the highest ranked quads. Seeing as quads vs quads is so unlikely, some casinos offer a bad-beat jackpot where the loser (sometimes along with other players at the table) receives a huge payout from the casino.

A slightly more common scenario for two players making quads occurs when the quads appears solely on the board.

Board: QQQ5Q

Hand 1: KK
Hand 2: A4

The above provides an example of the concept of “counterfeiting”. Hand 1 has a strong full house on the turn, Queens full of Kings. Once the fourth Queen appears on the river, hand 1 can no longer use his pocket-pair of Kings to construct his holding. He must use the four of a kind Queens since this is the strongest possible hand he can construct. 

This leaves room for one kicker, so hand 1 uses one of his Kings as the kicker. Although hand 2 was more or less total garbage on the turn, it now improves to the best hand by the river. It makes quad kings with an Ace Kicker which beats hand 1’s King kicker. Hand 1 usually feels rather hard done by at this stage and this scenario is one of the many that are referred to as “getting counterfeited”.

Straight Flush – We make a straight flush when we have five cards in consecutive rank order, all of the same suit.

For example, in Hold’em

Board: T956J

Hand 1: QK
Hand 2: 78

In this example both hand 1 and hand 2 make the straight flush. Similar to straights, the value of a straight-flush is determined by its highest card. Ace is the highest possible card, although the Ace-high straight flush is instead referred to as the “royal flush”. 

In the above example hand 1 makes the King-high straight flush while hand 2 makes the Jack-high straight-flush. 

Royal Flush – We make a royal flush when we make the Ten to Ace straight all of the same suit.

Board: QTK
Hand: AJ

The royal flush is the strongest possible holding in poker and can hence never be beaten by any other holding. It’s impossible for two players to both make a royal flush in Hold’em unless all five cards of the royal flush are on the board.

See Also 

High Hand, Two Pair, Three of a Kind, Straight, Flush, Full House, Quads, Straight Flush, Royal Flush, Hold’em, Omaha, Counterfeit, Effective Stacks, Kicker

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